Real-Life Stories Tell of Dignity and Diversity BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

Article excerpt

THE legacy of individual contributions made by African-Americans who surpassed expectations and cheated failure is increasingly reflected in today's children's books.

The real-life stories of those who rode the underground railroad, carried water and saved lives during every war fought in the United States, and with their bodies, hearts, and minds integrated schools during the 1960s are important to remember.

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine (Putnam, $16.95, ages 10 and up) is one such recollection. Divided into chapters that detail experiences of segregation - from integration in the schools to Freedom Summer and Bloody Sunday - this book provides a teen's-eye view of the chaos and camaraderie that were the hallmarks of the '60s.

One particularly striking account of classroom integration in Arkansas is offered by a student who became known as part of the Little Rock Nine. The black group faced down angry mobs while they completed their school assignments in a previously all-white high school. President Eisenhower had sent a US Army unit to protect them.

"One thing that I think is very important is this: While the nine of us may have been preselected, there really are nine, ten, thirty, forty, fifty kids in every community that could have done that," one participant recalls. "It wasn't that nine people fell out of the sky in Little Rock. We were all ordinary kids. You really do have the ability to do a lot more than either you've been told or you've been led to believe by your surroundings. If given the opportunity, you'd be surprised at how much you can do, how much you can achieve."

Several new biographies provide readers with portraits - from infancy to adulthood - of key people whose singular choices changed the course of their personal histories as well as that of their nation.

Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman?, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick McKissack (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 10 and up), is the account of Isabel Van Wagener's decision to sue for the return of her son, who was illegally sold as a slave. This was among the first cases in which a slave won judgment against a master. Known for her indomitable spirit and untutored oratory, Sojourner Truth, as she later renamed herself, had a gift for bringing her visions to life. The name Sojourner Truth became synonymous with the earliest struggles for freedom and women's rights.

The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor, by Wendy Towle (Scholastic, $14.95, ages 5 to 9), is a picture book that gives a well-rounded portrait of how one man's self-mastery led to inventions that improved the quality of life for an entire country. Elijah McCoy, son of escaped slaves, created an oil-lubricating cup, which oiled locomotives while they were in motion. It set the standard in the industry. As one legend has it, no copy of his invention was considered acceptable to those familiar with "the real McCoy." The writing is accompanied by the subtle tones and gentle strokes of artist Wil Clay.

For more than a generation after black Americans won the right to patent inventions in their own names, the legacy of slavery and the Civil War clung to daily life in the new South. …